At first glance, Turkey’s third-largest city (formerly known as Smyrna) may seem modern and harsh—even the beautiful setting, between the Gulf of İzmir and the mountains, doesn’t soften some of the starkness of industrial districts and sprawling concrete suburbs. Spend a few days here, though, either on your way to other parts of the south Aegean, or as a base for visiting Ephesus and the surrounding area, and you’ll find an extremely pleasant, progressive city with 7,000 years of history. Once a vital trading port, though often ravaged by wars and earthquakes, Homer, the legendary Greek poet, is said by some to have been born in Old Smyrna sometime around 850 BC. Alexander the Great ousted the Persians and rebuilt the city at the foothills of what is today called Kadifekale in 333 BC. It was an important religious center during the Byzantine Empire and was a battlefield during the Crusades, passing back and forth between Muslim and Christian powers. After World War I, it was occupied by the Greek army until 1922, when it was reclaimed by Atatürk. Shortly thereafter a fire destroyed three-fourths of the city and was quickly rebuilt under a modern urban plan. Like its name, much of the city center dates from the 1920s, with wide boulevards lined with palm trees, office buildings, and apartment houses painted in bright white or soft pastels.
As a modern visitor, the key is to make a beeline for the waterfront. An attractively refurbished promenade known as the Kordon follows the Gulf of Smyrna for almost 3 km (2 miles), chockablock with cafés and restaurants its entire length. A short walk inland, a refreshing wealth of landmarks include the Kemeraltı outdoor bazaar and a collection of interesting museums, while the ancient Kadifekale fortress crowns a hill of the same name. The waterside Konak district is at the heart of İzmir life, with shops, restaurants, and clubs that are continually moving farther afield along the waterfront into the narrow lanes of the old Alsancak and Pasaport neighborhoods. You can take in the scene on a walk along Pasaport pier, past a restored customs house originally built by Gustave Eiffel, or on the Asansör (elevator), an early-20th-century relic-turned-restaurant (also called Asansör) that connects the slopes of Karataş, a Jewish enclave that is one more piece of this cosmopolitan city that will delight you with its richness. The relaxed, largely residential neighborhoods of Karşıyaka and Bostanlı are a delightful ferry ride across the harbor. There's a developing gallery scene in the Bayraklı business district, situated between Alsancak and Karşıyaka, and lively bars catering to a young crowd in Bornova (especially around the old train station there), where many İzmir universities are located.
The International Izmir Festival, held annually in early summer, brings in both Turkish and international musicians to perform classical, traditional, and contemporary works of music, ballet, theater, and opera.